Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home (a movie review post)

I'm sure I've said it before, but Spider-Man is and always has been my favorite superhero. For as long as I've had a favorite superhero, that is, which is a long time, at least since I was four. I know I was four because I had this Spider-Man toy that I loved, and I remember playing with it at the house we lived in when I was four. It included a tube of stuff you could use to make spiderwebs, and I got in trouble pretty frequently for making webs between the spindles on the backs of our chairs.

Mysterio, on the other hand, has never been one of my favorite characters in the Spider-verse. And this bit may sound spoilery, but I'm not being spoilery because Marvel has done such an excellent job of setting up the MCU as its own place, and you can't take anything from the comics as being binding for the MCU. As far as villains go, Kraven was always my favorite when I was a kid then, later, it was Hobgoblin. Mysterio just wasn't that interesting but, man, has he been around for a long time, so it's cool to see Marvel pull him into the MCU in a way that makes much more sense than his comics origins. And Jake Gyllenhaal was great in the role. He really made it work.

He makes it work because the real crisis in the movie is Peter dealing with the death of Tony Stark. Both with his personal loss -- And, remember, for Peter, it hasn't actually been all that long since his Uncle Ben died. Tony is the second father figure for Peter to lose since he's been in high school. -- and the pressure from those around him to step up and be, basically, the Iron Spider. It's a lot to deal with and Quentin (Mysterio) is the only one around Peter offering him any support. Being fatherly.

And that's all I'll say about that.

The movie is a lot of fun, much of it dealing with Peter trying to work up the courage to tell MJ how he feels about her, something which is probably a "welcome" distraction for him rather than dealing with the pressure from all of the adults around him and the constant reminders that Start is dead. Yeah, I did say that the teenage romantic angst was something welcome for Peter, and he tries his best to avoid being Spider-Man just so that he can deal with what he sees as the romantic tension between the two of them.

I suppose the real question is, "Is it as good as Homecoming?" I'd have to say that it's not but, also, that it's not far off. It's definitely setting the stage for things that are to come, both for the next Spider-Man movie and the MCU in general, while dealing with Peter's personal issues and conflicts. If you're an MCU fan or a Spider-Man fan, it's certainly not to be missed.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Men in Black: International (a movie review post)

My first question is, "Why isn't this movie making more money?" Seriously, what the heck? It's like people can't deal with any deviation from the original but, yet, are going to complain about the thing if it's just like the original. Which, I suppose, explains the success of those inane Angry Speed movies, but you can get away with that kind of stuff when you toss your story out the window in favor of fast cars and explosions. Hmph, also explains the success of that last Max movie: fast driving, chases, and misogyny; can't beat that combo, I guess.

Anyway... None of that has to do with MiB: International, which was a delightfully fun movie. I'm not sure if there's any actor out there, right now, who is more fun to watch than Chris Hemsworth, and he was a lot of fun in this movie.

But I get that this is not Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. You know why? Because THIS IS NOT WILL SMITH AND TOMMY LEE JONES! This is not a story about Agents J and K. Why would you explore other stories in the Men-in-Black world and just stick new actors into previous character types? This one is about looking around the agency and seeing what else is there, not reproducing the same story that has already been told. This isn't a remake; if it were, you could make a case for trying to reproduce that same chemistry and with the same archetypes.

In fact, I would barely call this re-boot other than that they've taken a franchise that hasn't been touched in a while and made a new movie in that world in the hopes that it would lead to more movies, which it probably won't, based on its performance, and that's too bad, because this is a good movie. It deserves a lot of credit for not falling back into the tropes of the previous movies.

So, anyway...
Emma Thompson was perfect as Agent O; I wouldn't have dis-enjoyed it if they'd had more of her in the movie. Kumail was pretty great as Pawny. And Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson had great chemistry and worked well together. There really needs to be a sequel to this movie to keep these characters onscreen together.
Yeah, I didn't mention Liam Neeson. He was fine. I'm just not that impressed with him these days. He's entered the realm of always just playing Liam Neeson, so he was what I would say is the weak link of the movie. Fortunately, he's not in the movie that much.

All of which is to say, you should give the movie a chance if this is at all your kind of thing at all. Liam Neeson aside.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Orlando (an opera review post)

After having said, just this week, what I said about the general director of SFO and more traditional productions of classic operas, here's one that's... not. Which does not change the validity of my statement; the productions have still been trending toward "traditional" rather than "experimental" or "updated" or whatever you want to call anything that isn't set in its traditional setting. But, yes, Orlando gets a more modern setting, and it's a very good thing. I'm not sure how I would have felt about it if it had been done as written. As it is, I'm still conflicted over it.

Orlando is by Handel. Yes, that Handel, the Messiah one. Which means it's pretty. It's also everything that people who have never seen opera think opera is: people singing one line over and over again for five minutes. Okay, maybe three lines, but Orlando is really like that. This could be reduced to a not-even-very-long short story, even shorter if it was dialogue-based.

All that, and it makes use of one of my least favorite writing devices: the deus ex machina.

This production is set during World War II rather than it's original setting, and the opera becomes something much more interesting than having the problem solved by "god" coming down and making everything right. In this case, it's solved by a rather pompous psychiatrist and electroshock treatment. Of course, the electroshock treatment does seem to affect everyone involved, not just the receiver of the treatment, but it's much better than Zeus waving his hands around and making everything good again.

Here's something fun:
My brother, who is six years younger than me, sang in a boys' choir when he was probably about six or seven. Due to his association with that particular choir, I picked up a few tidbits of information about choirs of that sort, the main being that in the not too distant past, even, it was not uncommon for the best of these singers to be castrated before puberty so that they could retain their high-pitched voices into adulthood. Yeah, I'll just let that sink in a few moments...

You ready to go on yet?

So... Handel had a favored lead male singer who was one of these men who had been castrated to retain his voice, and Handel wrote the part of Orlando for that specific singer. Needless to say, it is, at best, a difficult role for a male to play these days, so SFO cast a woman in the role, which seems to be the norm. I don't know; I haven't done any research on the history of Orlando and at what point it became commonplace to have a woman in the role.

Anyway... None of that has any bearing on the actual opera production. It's just free trivia for you.

It took me a while to get into this one. It starts with this whole thing with the doctor/wizard Zoroastro trying to convince Orlando that he should forsake love and get back to his duty in the war because, you know, he's a war hero, and there are still Nazis to kill. That's probably advice Orlando should have taken because the woman he was in love with was in love with someone else, and so we have a conflict. It's a much more complicated conflict than that, though, more like a love tangle than a love triangle. After awhile, the story got interesting enough to draw me in. It just takes a while when it takes half an hour to cover a few sentences of story.

The set was pretty interesting. They set it in a hospital because Orlando has been wounded and this is where he had been making his recovery. It was, on the surface, a fairly simple set, just a spinning wall that could be different rooms as they turned it from one side to the other. It was very effective.

In the end, I liked it. A lot more than I expected to. It's sort of a stand-in-place-and-sing kind of opera, but the director turned it into a piece that plenty of movement and action. It was good. It helped to pull the audience, or, at least, me, into the performance.

Christina Gansch, who played the nurse Dorinda, really stood out. She was clever and funny and, really, made her role the center of the performance.

I don't know that I'd want to see this opera again, but I'm glad I saw this production of it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Carmen (an opera review post)

Carmen marks the first opera I have seen more than once. Evidently, it's one of SFO's favorite operas to perform, so I suppose you should expect another Carmen review in two to three years. This was a different production than the one we saw last time, and, I have to say, this one fell short. It's something that I'm saying that, too, because, at the point of the intermission, I announced to my wife, "I like this one better than the last one." I was wrong. But I'll get more to that in a moment or three.

First of all, this was a much more traditional production than the previous one. What I'm learning is that the new general director of SFO, having taken over in 2016, just after we started attending, is very much a traditionalist in his approach to the productions of older operas. He's British, so maybe that's why? It's not that they don't perform newer operas, after all, since we've been going, they've debuted several new opera productions, but, since he's been in charge, the trend has been to return all the staple operas to more traditional styles of productions. So, last time we saw Carmen, we had a show set in the 60s or 70s, while this recent production returned us to the 1800s. I don't know that this traditionalist approach is a detriment or not, but Carmen, in particular, seems to be ready for a more up-to-date interpretation.

I believe the reason I liked the first half of this particular production as much as I did is that Don Jose, the male lead, is not actually in it much. I enjoyed J'Nai Bridges in her role as Carmen. She very much embodied the character and was fun to watch. Matthew Polenzani, however, was barely believable in his role as Don Jose. He creates no romantic, sexual, or violent tension, and all three of those things are required in the male lead.

I would kind of love to break it all down, but I think that would take too long and, ultimately, prove to be uninteresting, so I'll give the highlights:
1. Polenzani turns what should have been a highly charged meeting of sexual tension into something that more resembles insta-love, as he ignored Carmen during the entire exchange. Once she's off the stage he picks up a flower she threw at him and decides he's in love with her.
2. During the pivotal scene where Jose is forced into running off to the mountains with Carmen, it doesn't actually feel forced. It comes across more as an "oh, well..."
3. During the final scene, Carmen keeps going on about how Jose should just go ahead and kill her if that's what he's going to do, but Polenzani managed to be so non-threatening throughout the production that it comes across as emo whining on the part of Carmen rather than any real threat upon her life. It makes her murder somewhat out of the blue and arbitrary feeling, more like he did because she was saying it rather than there being any threat of murder hanging in the air.

It's so bad, in fact, that when the romantic rival shows up, I really felt like Carmen should go off with him. You're not supposed to be rooting for this guy and, in the previous production we saw, I wasn't. In the that one, he felt like the villain he was supposed to be but, in this one, he felt like the better option. You could feel his passion for Carmen and could support that over Jose's milk-toast ambivalence.

Now, I realize that a lot of these issues could be directorial, but I think the lack of believable passion from Don Jose falls squarely on Polenzani's shoulders. Unless, maybe, the director told him to be as uninterested as possible, but I highly doubt that. Maybe it all would have been fine if I had just shut my eyes and listened to the music only but, then, I wouldn't have understood it because I need the translation on the screens.

All of which is to say that the specific production can make a huge difference in an opera. Yes, I knew that... in my head... but I had never experienced it before. Not in an opera, anyway. It's interesting to get this perspective.